SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


DOTPF dances out fantastic statistics
By Sen. Kim Elton


March 03, 2008
Monday AM

The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is losing street cred faster than Idaho Senator Larry Craig.

DOTPF's credibility problem arises because some managers use statistics the way Vin Scully says a drunk uses a lamp post. To a drunk, the value of a lamp post is it props you up. But for policy makers the value should be illumination.

The DOTPF pooh-bahs, I'm sure, are not tipplers but neither are they fully committed to illumination. Let me explain.

Advocating for the Lynn Canal Highway Tuesday, two DOTPF policy makers told the Senate Transportation Committee a land link to a new ferry terminal across from Haines "achieves permanent savings while improving service". In support of the statement, they provided statistics.

DOTPF statistic #1: the likely (ferry) costs over 12 years are equivalent to about six Juneau Access projects. My reaction to this statistical lamp post is: comparing the Lynn Canal Highway costs to the cost of the entire ferry system over 12 years is no more appropriate than comparing the costs of the entire state highway system over 12 years to the cost of a new Lynn Canal ferry.

DOTPF statistic #2: the number of vehicle miles traveled on the ferry system is .5 percent of vehicle miles on state roads. My reaction to this statistical lamp post is: the vast, vast, vast majority of vehicle miles on state roads is commuter traffic in Alaska's urban areas so, of course, ferry traffic is a small component of any vehicle mile total.

DOTPF statistic #3: the cost per vehicle mile on the highways is far, far, far less than the cost per vehicle mile on the marine highway system (by a factor, the department folks say, of more than 1:200). My reaction to this statistical lamp post is: the volume of traffic on urban roads the state owns distort the ratio dramatically because ferries don't have the tens and tens and tens of thousands of daily vehicle miles that accrue because of the intra-urban state roads that move the vast majority of commuters in Anchorage and Fairbanks or along Glacier Highway and Egan Expressway in Juneau. Ferries don't do drags like the A-C couplet, or Tudor, or Dimond, or O'Malley, or all the other Anchorage and Fairbanks state roads that move drivers from home to job and job to the grocery store. Ferries go from community to community.

DOTPF statistic #4: the projected inflation rate used to help support the $350 million projected cost of the Lynn Canal Highway is 4 percent per year over the course of a 12-year construction period. My reaction to this statistical lamp post: one of the department's contractors says the $350 million should be viewed as a preliminary number. I trust the contractor. And remember, this third of a billion dollar plus cost estimate comes from the same folks who estimated the cost of the Third Avenue project in Ketchikan at $6 million while the final cost was four times that. (Third Avenue was a one mile project with easy urban access.)

DOTPF forgets, when they use statistics this way, that they are clinging to numbers for support like a drunk uses that lamp post. They probably need to hold on after tiring themselves out climbing that post to dim the light.

I'm especially aggrieved by DOTPF statistic #4. On Tuesday, DOTPF officials projected inflation for the Lynn Canal Highway over the next 12 years will be 4 percent. On Wednesday, DOTPF officials testifying in support of a $1 billion endowment for future transportation costs noted inflation between 2000 and 2006 was 80 percent for paving and 60 percent for earthmoving. That's a rate of about 10 percent which is 2.5 times the rate they project for the next 10 years. Last year they told Alaska's congressional delegation our inflation rate for highway construction is double the U.S. average and that explains why "we seem to be delaying nearly everything in our spending plan."

Let's repeat this. On Tuesday DOTPF folks had a 4 percent solution for inflation when it came to building the Lynn Canal Highway. On Wednesday, they had a 10 percent solution for inflation as they tried to convince the legislature to set aside $1 billion for future spending. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes, known for cracking the seven percent solution caper, to intuit there may be mischief afoot with the DOTPF inflation numbers.

When DOTPF officials manipulate statistics as they did in these four incidents, they lose street cred (in this case, technically, highway cred). And credibility is extremely important as they seek to lighten Alaska's general fund wallet by $1.35 billion. (That's a lot of money. 1.35 billion seconds ago it was 1942.)

When it comes to that number of public dollars, I'd suggest DOTPF officials focus on the street lamp and not on the post -- especially when they use the post so inartfully.

Sen. Kim Elton
Juneau, AK

Received February 29, 2008 - Published March 03, 2008


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